June 29, 2020

As Districts Plan for Fall, Lessons Learned from Minnesota’s Distance Learning Plans

By Krista Kaput

The Minnesota Department of Education (MDE) recently issued guidance to help schools plan for the fall, and asked districts to plan for three potential scenarios: in-person, hybrid, or distance learning. And even if schools physically re-open, a strong plan for distance learning will be important since there may still be intermittent closures. 

Districts need to carefully consider family feedback on what did and didn’t work under distance learning, and develop plans around this tailored to age, special needs, and other considerations. They should also look to promising practices that emerged across the state this spring. To that end, EdAllies analyzed the distance learning plans of 61 Minnesota districts and 30 charter schools, honing in on those with the largest low-income student populations. 

While districts were responsive and adaptive, updating and improving their plans over time, we found that in most cases, the rapid-response plans developed this spring will be insufficient to effectively serve students going into the 2020-21 school year. We took an initial look at plans in April, focusing on how districts were meeting the needs of students with special needs and English Learners, getting their students internet and devices, and more. You can read about best practices here

Here, we provide an updated overview of some of the trends and considerations for districts as they plan for the upcoming academic year. You can view our database here, with details on each plan we reviewed. 

Supporting Academic Growth and Transparency 

Recent projections indicate that students, and particularly those most traditionally underserved, are going to experience drastic learning loss in math and reading related to COVID-19 school closures. As they rapidly adapted to distance learning and responded to the pressure facing families, this spring, only one in three districts across the country expected teachers to provide instruction, track student engagement, or monitor academic progress. The numbers aren’t much better in Minnesota. Moving into a new school year, this approach will no longer be tenable, and it will be critical to look to the districts that developed strong approaches. 

Teaching New Content

With schools closing in March, students lost nearly three months of in-person instruction, in many cases, completely missing out on the new content and standards that would have been covered. This will have a significant impact on preparedness for the fall. Overall, just 36% of distance learning plans indicated that students would be taught new content. Going into a new academic year, this must be made explicit in every district plan. 

Live Instruction and Office Hours 

Teaching content in real-time leads to enhanced learning, student-centered instruction, and more timely formative feedback. However, we found that only 23% of distance learning plans specified that students would have access to live—or synchronous—instruction. Some, like New Millennium Charter School, indicated that they would use live instruction based on student-centered goals: to “effectively meet scholars’ unique learning needs, including the need for differentiated and 1:1 instruction.” Others, like Minneapolis Public Schools made videos required, but with an option for schools to produce live, standards-based instruction or asynchronous daily content.

Given the unique circumstances of each district and family, it’s understandable that live instruction may not always be an option—particularly when offered on an emergency, universal basis. In lieu of live instruction, some districts offered office hours so students could ask questions and get one-on-one support, but this was only named in 41% of plans. Going into the fall, every district should have a clear plan for live, in-person connections for any student taking part in distance learning.

Feedback on Assignments 

Tracking student progress by collecting assignments, and assessing students’ progress toward academic benchmarks or grading their work would have been the best way to measure whether students were staying on track during distance learning. With the Minnesota Comprehensive Assessments waived for the year, it might also have been the only way for families, students, and educators to understand the gaps in student learning that may emerge before the fall. 

However, only 42% of districts specified whether students would receive feedback on assignments. Going into the fall, schools must adopt a much more robust approach to feedback and assessment. 

Grading Policies

In early May, MDE issued guidance on grading and assessment for distance learning. Only 40% of districts reported their grading policy, with varying degrees of specificity. Many districts adopted different grading systems for elementary, middle, and high school students. In the Hopkins Public School district, for example

  • Elementary: Information about student progress will be shared with instructors in the next grade level to provide instructional guidance for the 2020-21 school year.
  • Middle: For courses that currently report letter grades, students can opt for their classes to either maintain the current grading scale (A, B, C, D, NC) or choose a Pass or No Credit option. 
  • High: Students, families, and teachers can opt for any of their classes to either maintain the current grading scale (A, B, C, D, NC) or choose a Pass or No Credit. 

In the fall, schools should work to move back to stronger, schoolwide policies. Spring policies were, in part, adapted to sudden stressors and barriers facing students, families, and educators. Going into the fall, districts should develop strong plans for addressing these barriers to fully implement academic programming and assessment.

Planning for Fall

Our review of spring distance learning plans reveals significant gaps in academic programming, student supports, and more. Some of these gaps highlight the importance of in-person learning for student success, but others are a reflection of crisis operations. Districts are still facing unprecedented challenges going into the fall, but it is clear that in most cases, the spring distance learning plans will be insufficient to carry students successfully through a full school year. 

With incredibly high stakes for long-term student outcomes—particularly for historically underserved students—districts should spend the next two months collaborating with students, families, and educators to build strong plans for 2020-21 that place students at the center and account for evolving public health guidance.

EdAllies will continue to uplift innovative and student-centered practices that other districts and charter schools could learn from and adopt.